Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Best of FlavorTop 10 Trends

Here's to Your Health

Better-for-you efforts are seeing new menu uses for turkey that go far beyond its Thanksgiving flavor counterparts. photo courtesy of national turkey federation. When it comes to healthful eating, smart diners want smart strategies from restaurants

By Rita Negrete

Diners who would prefer to remain oblivious to the nutritional content of the food they order are having a harder time of it thanks to the proliferation of formerly voluntary—and now mandatory—menu labeling in chain restaurants. However, the “don’t want to know” contingent is a minority today, according to Technomic research; a recent survey of restaurant user attitudes showed that 65 percent favored nutritional labeling in restaurants, with the strongest demand for listing of calories and sodium content. About the same percentage claimed that having this information is helpful in making ordering decisions and believed that it has a positive impact on consumer health and nutrition.

It’s likely that consumers will demand increasing transparency from restaurants, believing that more readily available information will help them make more informed choices when eating out. As a consequence, restaurants will face growing pressure for more comprehensive nutritional disclosure—and, by implication, for more nutritious menus.

What’s Healthy?
Healthy eating is a central trend in the foodservice industry, but the exact role of specific ideas about healthy eating in motivating consumers’ purchasing decisions can be difficult to understand. There’s been a shift in what actually defines “healthy” for diners.

While half of consumers say that foods described as low in fat, salt or sugar clearly signal health, they also believe these health claims strongly detract from the taste of food. Instead, more and more consumers are gravitating toward positive health-halo claims such as “local,” “natural,” “organic,” “sustainable” and “free-range.” Claims that relate to freshness, quality and additives also prove to have major sway in consumer’s health perceptions; fully 87 percent of consumers see food described as “fresh” as healthier than other items. In addition, four out of five say that descriptions such as “preservative-free,” “no artificial sweetener” and “unprocessed” would influence them to see a menu item as healthful. Items that are called out for containing fruit, vegetables or whole grains signal health on the menu, while strongly enhancing consumers’ taste perceptions.

Half of consumers say they would like restaurants to offer more of the foods they consider healthy, and nearly as many say they would probably order these options if they were offered. Operators can leverage this growing consumer interest in positive health-halo attributes by developing menu offerings that underscore health without detracting from consumers’ perception of taste.

Healthful options like broiled swordfish will appeal to the growing number of consumers gravitating toward menu items with positive
health-halo claims. photo courtesy of sunkist.

Rethinking Proteins
A look at the latest health trends in menu items begins with proteins, since these are literally at the center of the plate. Rising commodity prices, growing health and sustainability concerns, and the simple desire for novelty on the menu have all played a part in a shift beyond beef and toward alternative proteins, including poultry, seafood and legumes. More than two out of five consumers who eat burgers say that gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian burger options are highly important to them. Almost a quarter say that the availability of burger proteins such as poultry and fish are very important to them, and that they would be willing to pay more for them. Among the burgeoning alternative burgers seen on menus this year, some of the most interesting include the following, all with Asian flavor positioning:

Teriyaki Chicken Burger: Skinless breast of chicken chargrilled with teriyaki, served with lettuce, Jack cheese and grilled pineapple — Anthony’s Restaurants, Bellevue, Wash.-based

Spicy Thai Shrimp Burger: Lightly fried shrimp burger topped with lettuce, tomato, sriracha aïoli, hot chile slaw and sriracha sauce on a toasted sesame bun — Burger 21, Tampa, Fla.-based

Yin & Yang Burger: Edamame burger topped with tomato, sliced red onion, lettuce, basil pesto and goat cheese crumbles on a multigrain roll — Tom & Eddie’s, Naperville, Ill.-based

The move toward poultry also encompasses greater attention to turkey. Nearly half of turkey consumers (46 percent) agree that most chicken dishes would taste just as good if they were made with turkey. Operators are increasingly exploring new space on the menu for turkey, and pairing it with flavors that suggest anything but Thanksgiving dinner. Some of the healthy turkey items seen on menus this year include:

Plainville Farm Turkey Skewer: Basted with Zinfandel barbecue sauce, grilled and served on a bed of farro grains accented with grilled peppers, corn and green beans — Seasons 52, Orlando, Fla.-based

Tuscan Turkey Crêpe: Turkey breast, baby spinach, provolone cheese, tomatoes, roasted red peppers and a light Tuscan dressing in a multigrain crêpe — Freshens, Atlanta-based

Turkey Iceburger: Turkey-burger patty with avocado, Swiss, bacon, tomato, pickles and onions, wrapped in iceberg lettuce and served with sweet-potato fries and a diet soft drink for a total of 568 calories; part of the Under 600 Calories Menu — Mooyah, Dallas-based

A related trend is the recent proliferation of poultry in breakfast entrées, replacing high-fat pork sausage or bacon. Typical menu introductions include First Watch’s seasonal Pumpkin Pancakes served with turkey sausage, Corner Bakery Cafe’s Chicken Apple Sausage Panini, and the Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich on Dunkin’ Donuts’ under-400-calorie DDSMART menu—a pepper fried egg, turkey sausage patty and a slice of reduced-fat cheddar cheese, served on an oven-toasted English muffin.

Positioning Produce
Consumers identify a number of foods as naturally healthful, but only two menu categories are identified by the majority as “very” healthy: fruits and raw vegetables. In particular, menu callouts that highlight an item as containing a full serving of fruit or vegetables can powerfully signal healthfulness. What’s more, two out of three consumers say foods that contain a full serving of fruit are tastier than other items, and almost half say the same for foods that contain a full serving of vegetables.

Restaurant concepts exploiting this identification of fresh fruits and vegetables with both healthfulness and taste include Tropical Smoothie Café, which launched two new smoothies promoted as featuring five full servings of fruits and vegetables: the Island Green Smoothie (spinach, kale, mango, pineapple and banana) and Caribbean Carrot Smoothie (carrots, mango, banana, goji and orange juice). Similarly, when Chick-fil-A rolled out three new premium salads—Cobb Salad, Asian Salad and Grilled Market Salad—it advertised them as each containing two servings of vegetables or fruit.

Another way to encourage consumers to choose more veggies is to give them a chance to build their own menu items. Sandwich and burrito shops have long led the way with build-your-own formats, but the idea is spreading to other menu categories. According to the recent Concepts 2020 research conducted by Technomic, made-to-order pizza concepts may be the next hot trend in the industry, in part because their fresh, gourmet positioning provides a strong platform for health and wellness. Launched by a cofounder of Moe’s Southwest Grill, Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint applies the same build-your-own model used at Moe’s, but for pizza instead of burritos. Consumers construct their pies with high-quality ingredients including 45 toppings; produce options range from artichoke hearts to black-bean-and-corn salsa to Mandarin oranges to zucchini.

Along the same lines, Charley’s Grilled Subs parent Gosh Enterprises opened an Asian fast-casual concept, BiBiBop Asian Grill, this past summer. It specializes in signature built-to-order rice bowls: Patrons choose a bowl, salad or wrap format, beginning with a protein (steak, chicken or organic tofu), then adding steamed vegetables, sautéed potatoes and/or black beans, plus a sauce and garnishes such as carrots, daikon, cucumbers, lettuce and corn.

Quinoa has surged in popularity as a gluten-free ancient grain that readily complements other ingredients, as in this mango quinoa salad. photo courtesy of dole food co.

Grain Goodness
In addition to rethinking proteins and boosting emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruits on the menu, operators are turning to whole grains for their health-halo positioning as well as their complex flavor and texture. Almost half of consumers (45 percent) believe that menu offerings that contain 100 percent whole grains are tastier than other items on the menu.

McDonald’s successful Egg White Delight McMuffin gets part of its health halo from the muffin, which is advertised as containing eight grams of whole grain. Einstein Bros. Bagels and sister chain Noah’s Bagels rolled out three Super Grain bagels—the 9-Grain Bagel, Power Protein Bagel and 100% Whole Wheat Bagel with Honey—and promoted them as healthy sources of energy to “power up” in the morning or anytime. And when Au Bon Pain introduced a Black Angus Steak & Cheese hot sandwich—sliced Black Angus steak, horseradish aïoli, caramelized onions, fire-roasted red and yellow bell peppers, three-cheddar-blend cheese and roasted tomatoes—it further differentiated the offering with “ancient grain” ciabatta bread.

Whole grains aren’t just for sandwich breads, they’re also a big trend for pizza crusts. Uno Chicago Grill, for instance, advertises its Five-Grain Crust option—a mix of whole wheat, toasted wheat germ, oat bran, sesame seeds and ground flax seeds—as containing 11 grams of fiber.

Along with many other pizza purveyors, Uno Chicago Grill also offers a gluten-free crust. The gluten-free-eating trend is still going strong, with menu mentions of gluten-free items in Top 500 chains up 3.3 percent from a year ago. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, is not present in rice, corn or “ancient grains” like quinoa or amaranth. That’s one reason for the doubling of quinoa mentions on Top 500 menus this year. Examples of the tiny grain include:

Quinoa Salad with chopped almonds, black beans and avocado, served with Champagne vinaigrette — Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill, Southern Calif.-based

Quinoa Power Bowl: With quinoa, kale, carrots, house-roasted tomatoes, grilled lemon chicken, basil pesto sauce, feta and herbs — First Watch, University Park, Fla.-based

Quinoa-Kale Pilaf: A new side-dish option this year — Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, Chattanooga, Tenn.-based

Quinoa Coconut Pancakes: Gluten-free pancakes with blueberries, pecans, grilled bananas, strawberries and agave syrup — Another Broken Egg Cafe, Miramar Beach, Fla.-based

Health versus Indulgence: The Balancing Act
Technomic research shows that more consumers than ever before consider it important to eat healthfully and pay attention to nutrition. While most do not follow a specific diet, the vast majority (92 percent) say health is a priority for them, and they at least try to eat healthfully most of the time. Three out of 10 say they seek out healthy menu items at fast-food restaurants, and a third say they’re ordering healthy items at fast-casual and casual-dining restaurants more often than they did a year ago.

Of particular interest to the industry is the fact that consumers are willing to pay more for foods with nutrition indicators; 46 percent would pay more for foods described as “fresh,” and about 40 percent would pay more for hormone-free meat and unprocessed foods and beverages.

However, consumers ordered what they considered a healthy meal on just four out of their last 10 restaurant occasions. Healthy menu options have the potential to act as a traffic driver for a significant proportion of consumers, at least on some occasions; but, on the other hand, diners may be looking for a chance to let down their hair and splurge on an indulgent appetizer, entrée, dessert or adult beverage. Operations that offer a wide variety of both healthful and indulgent menu items, in a variety of sizes, are the most likely to please a wide clientele.

“Health food” was long considered dry, tasteless or bland, but nowadays, menus that highlight fresh fare and a wide range of proteins, vegetables, fruits and grains signal flavor. Such markers are important to consumers, even when they ultimately decide to order the fries or the chocolate cake: 38 percent of consumers today—up from just 33 percent in 2010—say they’re more likely to visit restaurants that have healthy menu options, even if they don’t end up ordering a better-for-you offering on that particular occasion.

Healthful options have the potential to get consumers through the door, but a menu that emphasizes taste seals the deal. Operators must stay in step with how their customers are responding to health claims on the menu and look for opportunities to revamp offerings to better meet current consumer needs and trends. Taking a “fresh” approach to health by emphasizing intense flavor and natural, wholesome, “real” positioning can help attract and retain customers.

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